Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Chad Hayes & Carey Hayes (screenplay)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston
The Conjuring is a legitimately frightening movie without taking the gory (i.e. easy) way out. It is at once an ode to ’70s horror like The Exorcist or Suspiria and a clever subversion of the modern “found footage” sub-genre. The movie is so well-edited and pieced together that other people in the theater I was in shrieked and squirmed in an almost equally convincing manner as the characters.
There are two main families at play here, though the Perrons do a bulk of the screaming. They are a beacon of working class stability, and director James Wan makes it quite clear from the beginning how temporary that is for them as they take up residence in a secluded old house. He stalks the parents and their five daughters through the moving-in process, giving us a sense of their familial rituals while also hinting at how the script (by Chad and Carey Hayes) will later use that against them. ,
Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), along with their young daughter, make up the second family. They are paranormal investigators, and will be the first to tell you how kooky that sounds. Farmiga and Wilson are great in their roles, bringing exactly the right amount of zany sincerity to the duo.
The Conjuring is marketed as a true story, and the mythic nature of that truth is amplified by the fact that the rating’s board reportedly gave the movie an ‘R’ rating for being too scary. There are moments of pure terror, edited so precisely that they could be shown shot-by-shot in a filmmaking course. That is how profoundly effective this movie sometimes is.
Ed, Lorraine and their assistant Drew (Shannon Kook) are asked by the Perrons to expel a demonic presence that has been terrorizing them day and night, by slamming doors and grabbing and brusing them in their sleep. The Warrens try to capture that demon on camera so they can get permission from the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism on the house, but that equipment mostly serves as another way to play with the audience and reveal the spirits without having to show them.
What the movie doesn’t do is use that equipment as the primary way of telling the story. There is only one scene where someone uses a video camera to tape the Warrens in the cellar trying to summon a demon. For the most part, though, Wan is taping people taping the footage that would later be found and turned into something like Paranormal Activity. It’s a clever comment on the genre, but thankfully it isn’t a main point and he doesn’t beat the audience to death with making it.
“Found footage” movies sometimes deliver on a primal level, but their pleasures always feel accidental because the movies themselves are supposed to feel accidental. The Conjuring is one of the best horror movie experience I’ve ever had in a theater, which says more about the shitty state of the genre in America than it does about the movie’s quality. It is far from a masterpiece. There are some cringe-inducing attempts at ’70s catch phrases and some pretty flamboyant crosscutting in the final exorcism scene that take away from its impact.
Outside of the intense sensory experience this movie offers, there is a well-told if fairly standard story of familial bonding. It seems kind of medieval to make the mother (Lili Taylor) the one who becomes possessed and wants to kill her children (has it ever been the father?), but Lorraine Warren is such a powerful character that it pretty much obliterates that criticism. I wasn’t really convinced that it was a true story after the demons had been sent back to Hell, though, no matter how effectively made it was or how bureaucratic it made the Vatican look.